NJ Governor’s Race Narrows with Sweeney Out of the Running

By Brenda Flanagan

“We stand here to say, the party is unified behind our next governor, Ambassador Phil Murphy,” said Lou Stellata.

Bergen County’s Democratic Committee chairman kicked off a veritable parade of endorsements for the former Goldman Sachs executive, his party’s only officially declared candidate for governor and apparent front-runner for the nomination.

“Many of us have talked to leaders across the state and we’ve come to the conclusion that this one man we feel can bring us all together and we will be there to help him,” said Passaic County and New Jersey Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie.

The acclamations came only hours after Senate President Steve Sweeney abruptly abandoned his unofficial pursuit of the executive office, stating: “…it has become clear that Phil Murphy has been able to secure substantial support from Democratic and community leaders that would make my bid all but impossible… I look forward to working with him next year during the campaign and when he takes the governor’s office in 2018.”

Sweeney called Murphy.

“And we pledged to work together to see we elect Democrats throughout the state and up and down the ticket next year,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s meteoric arc to dominance started just last week, when Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop unexpectedly spiked his own run for governor and endorsed Murphy. That drew this sarcastic observation from Sweeney: “It is no surprise to see two former Goldman Sachs workers embrace.”

Here’s the surprise: Murphy’s team moved swiftly to capitalize on Fulop’s serendipitous exit, consolidating support at the county level. As of today, 11 Democratic county chairmen have or will endorse Phil Murphy — a swath of New Jersey that includes its most populous northern counties.

“Certainly this is game over in terms of the Democratic nomination. We haven’t had a competitive Democratic governor’s primary for 20 years now,” said Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray. “And we’re not going to have one now.”

Pollster Murray connects the dots back to Fulop.

“The reason that Sweeney dropped out was his entire strategy was based on Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and Phil Murphy splitting the North Jersey vote. Obviously once Fulop dropped out that was not going to happen,” Murray said.

Murphy’s not totally unopposed. Union County Sen. Ray Lesniak still plans to run for governor.

“There’s a whole new landscape in politics today. With social media you can reach the public. You don’t have to kowtow to the party bosses,” Lesniak said.

And Middlesex County Assemblyman John Wisniewski’s not out of the race. He criticized Democratic bosses anointing a nominee this early on.

“Who want to clear the field before there’s an opportunity to have the rank and file weigh in before there’s an opportunity for the voters to weigh in. They deserve to have a voice,” Wisniewski said.

But Murphy — who loaned his campaign $10 million of his own money — faces other headwinds, among them, the Goldman Sachs tag. He’s also been anointed New Jersey’s next governor by Democratic Party bosses before most New Jersey voters even learn his name.

“I won’t take my foot off the gas and I have to earn this. This is a huge day obviously and I’m humbled by it but I’m getting in the car and we’re focusing back to the issues and the people and we are not going to take one thing for granted,” Murphy said.

The cascade of endorsements continues tomorrow. Most observers conclude the nomination’s a lock for Murphy. Now he just needs to get the endorsement of New Jersey voters.

As dean of the legislative press corps, NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron knows more about the internecine aspects of Jersey politics than just about anyone. He spoke to Anchor Mary Alice Williams about it.

Williams: So what’s the back story here, Michael?

Aron: Mary Alice, I’ve heard a few back stories, but I don’t know if any of them are true. Suffice it to say that Steve Fulop’s withdrawal was so abrupt that there is a back story. In Steve Sweeney’s case, I don’t know that there is a back story. Once Fulop got out of the race a week ago, the math became difficult for Sweeney. And once Fulop’s former supporters or seeming supporters, the county chairs of North Jersey went to Murphy, the math became difficult. Fulop tweeted today that the race is now Steve-less. No Steve Sweeney, no Steve Fulop.

Williams: Can you recall a nomination ever getting wrapped up this early?

Aron: Not in a contested year. The only year that comes close to this one is in 1989 when Jim Florio was the clear favorite to win the nomination. He was challenged by then Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Murphy/Lesniak alignment today but he had a serious primary and he won.

Williams: Is Murphy getting a free ride?

Aron: He’s getting close to a free ride. Lesniak says that he’s going to file some candidate papers tomorrow. He’s going to have a big launch after the presidential election. And then he’s going to be the Bernie Sanders to Murphy’s Hillary Clinton, except with a different outcome. Wisniewski is more of a sphinx. It’s hard to say whether he’s really going to run but he’s waiting until after the election.

Read Sweeney’s full statement here.